Forced Thruths in Foucault's 'The History of Sexuality'


Forced Thruths

By: Nanci Nwamaka Ikejimba

In reading Michel Foucault’s The History of Sexuality, I was most intrigued by Part Three: Scientia Sexualis.  In this section, I was struck by the method of compiling sexual information for the construction of sexual science.  According to Foucault, and previously, unbeknownst to me, confessions of sexual desires and actions were demanded of individuals during the nineteenth century.  Furthermore, the sorts of confessions demanded during this time were not ones for the faint of heart, but instead, required the ‘precise’ recollection and revelation of every intimate detail.

As an artist whose work deals heavily with the concept of memory, I’ve found that memory is very difficult to elucidate and based heavily on emotions. In short, memory is imprecise.  The acclaimed oral historian Studs Terkel, in the introduction to his collection of oral histories Hard Times, said of his interviewees: “In their rememberings are their truths.  The precise fact or the precise date is of small consequence.”[1]  According to Terkel, more important, is how the person remembering ‘felt’ about the situation.  That is the underlying quality of memory.  It is a very personal lexicography of emotional experience. 

With this in mind, regardless of the effects of socio-religious pressure and torture, memory is a very fragile, personal, and emotive phenomenon.  But in combination with forced retrieval and recital, an even greater paradox is created.  The flowing stream of personal experiences is suddenly choked with the psychological pressure of relaying every emotion to a person ‘authorized’ to receive them.  This humiliation is furthered by the unwillingness of the authority to reciprocate and recite their own personal dictionary of emotions.  With the addition of torture, the confessor’s memory becomes even more unstable.  The confessor, in order to avoid additional pain (be it physical or psychological), is compelled to tell the authority what he wants to hear. 

According to Foucault, the confession was “one of the main rituals we rely on for the production of truth.”[2]  As the information used in the development of Scientia Sexualis was considered ‘truth’, confessions were the backbones for these studies.  The validity of these ‘thruths’ is pathetic as they were mandatory, coupled with torture, and dealing with the lucid concept of memory.  The disturbing aspects of this science are that it prevails today and has influenced the current conceptions of ‘sexuality’ with the information gathered during this time still bearing the label of ‘truth’.

[1] Studs Terkel, “Hard Times” (recordings) 1971

[2] Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Vol. 1: An Introduction, trans. Robert Hurley (New York: Vintage, 1978). Pg. 58